The night of his film’s premiere, an up-and-coming filmmaker returns home with his girlfriend, and the two proceed to argue and eat mac’n’cheese for two hours. This is the entire plot of Malcolm & Marie, a film that would be unwatchable were it not for its leads, John David Washington and Zendaya. Written and directed by Sam Levinson, M&M is equal parts relationship drama and real estate video, as the house Malcolm and Marie are staying in, the sole location of the film, is a spectacular modernist retreat in Carmel, California and it is lovingly lensed in black and white by cinematographer Marcell Rev. When people say that a location is “like another character” in a movie or TV show, they really mean the humans are boring so you will spend a lot of time noticing the locations and set design. The Carmel house in Malcolm & Marie is like another character in the film.
The film takes place almost in real time as Malcolm and Marie arrive home after Malcolm’s premiere and it becomes immediately clear that Marie is peeved for some reason. As she anger-cooks some mac’n’cheese, her reason is revealed: Malcolm failed to thank her during his remarks at his premiere. Marie is Malcolm’s long-term partner, which you would never guess given how little these two seem to know about each other, so to her this is not a simple oversight. It’s part of a larger, ongoing issue between them, that Malcolm mined her real, lived experience as a drug addict for his film, only to slowly cut Marie out of the process entirely, up to and including the moment he did not thank her while celebrating the film.
As the night and the interminable argument wear on, we learn that Marie, a sometimes actress and part-time Instagram model, intended to act in the movie, only for the part—based on her—to go to someone called “Taylor”, and she did not receive any kind of credit for the story. And then, the final nail, Malcolm’s oversight. This would be quite enough for the film to get on with, as Malcom and Marie argue about everything and anything, but they keep coming back to Marie’s dissatisfaction with being relegated to Malcolm’s muse, and not his partner. It’s navel-gazey and not going to be relatable or interesting to everyone, but there is something here worth picking at, especially as these seemingly inoffensive slights can turn out to be indicators of much bigger issues in a relationship. Malcolm and Marie seem like a horrible couple and they should probably break up, but at least their big argument pushes at something true about art and inspiration and relationships and how messy those things can get when intertwined.
BUT THEN. Malcolm goes on a tirade against “the white lady at The LA Times”, who gave his film a good review but made a political reading on Malcolm’s addiction drama and asserted that being a Black filmmaker gives him insight into Black women’s pain. This is almost certainly a jab at real-life writer and critic Katie Walsh, who reviewed Levinson’s last film, Assassination Nation, less than positively for The LA Times. I am not taking personally a filmmaker attacking a critic or the job of film criticism, there will always be some friction in that relationship. I AM, however, uncomfortable with a white filmmaker putting these words in a Black actor’s mouth and better people than me can pick that apart but it is super weird and JDW deserves better. When Malcolm isn’t ranting about “the white lady at The LA Times”, he is sexy and spiteful and charismatic and conniving and basically a complicated bag of handsomeness who is compelling to watch, even when just eating some mac’n’cheese. (The mac’n’cheese is like another character in the film.)
As a film made under COVID restrictions, Malcolm & Marie is somewhat interesting. The M&M team shows what two compelling performers can do to distract from the minimal setting and lack of other characters. Zendaya, in particular, controls every beat from a wispy giggle to a furious roar, with one particular scene making it clear that no matter what Malcolm has accomplished that night, Marie is the really interesting person in that relationship. And Levinson, who works with Zendaya on Euphoria, clearly knows how to make the most of his maximally talented star. If Malcolm is complicated, Marie is a supernova of contradictions, who is genuinely supportive of Malcolm but will never let him forget what he took from her to score his big film. Again, these two should probably break up, but when the actors are so talented and irresistible, and the location so spectacular, watching them fight is almost but not quite bearable.
For its aesthetics alone, Malcolm & Marie is bound to attract some fans. Zendaya is styled for the film by her actual stylist, Law Roach, a symbiotic relationship that recalls the on-and-off-screen collaboration of Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy (and a partnership with equally amazing results). As mentioned, the house is incredible, and at one point, JDW dances to James Brown, a scene sure to be added to the compendium of great cinematic dancing. This is a fun film to look at, just not to listen to. Nothing anyone says ever sounds remotely like actual human speech, but Zendaya and JDW are so good they almost manage to make their dialogue seem natural. If only the script didn’t disappear up its own ass, Malcolm & Marie might be more than just a COVID curiosity and a footnote in the fashion career of Zendaya. As it is, Malcolm & Marie is the world’s most expensive Airbnb ad slash ad for Kraft Mac’n’Cheese.
Malcolm & Marie is now on Netflix.